And the winner is: Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light
Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki.
So, more on the winner …
The book was published by Text Publishing, and in their email announcing the winner they shared the thoughts of Michael Heyward, Text’s publisher:
‘Bodies of Light is a transformative novel that gives epic scope to the life of a single soul. To read it is to be immersed in it. All of us at Text are thrilled at the news of Jennifer Down’s Miles Franklin win, and offer her our heartfelt congratulations.’
And of senior editor Alaina Gougoulis:
‘What an incredible recognition of Jennifer Down and all she has achieved with Bodies of Light. The abundant talent on display in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, has been fully realised in this book, an intimate story of one life told on an epic scale: heartbreaking, and yet brimming with hope and beauty. That she is still so early in her career should fill us with optimism about the future of Australian writing. I am beyond thrilled for her, as her editor and as her friend. Warmest congratulations to Jenn, from all at Text.’
The announcement has already been reported by the usual sources, like the ABC, The Guardian, The Conversation, and so on. Canberra’s Jen Webb wrote The Conversation’s article. As she says, Down already has some runs on the board: she won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year award for her debut novel, Our magic hour in 2017, and again in 2018 for her short story collection Pulse points.
Webb shares that the judges commended the book as “a novel of affirmation, resilience and survival, told through an astonishing voice that reinvents itself from six to 60”, and she describes it herself as follows:
Under interrogation-level lighting, it confronts the institutional “care” offered to the most vulnerable of people: little children, labile adolescents, and traumatised youth. Any society that routinely fails to provide children with the care they need to grow into secure adulthood is a society that needs a critical light shone on it. In the most lyrical, gentle language, this is precisely what Bodies of light does.
It’s a book that interests me. Indeed, Down has interested me since Pulse points appeared (and for which there is a guest post on my blog).
I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, and if any of you have been following the award you will know that controversy has, once again, hit it, with one of the longlisted books, John Hughes’ The dogs, being withdrawn on the grounds of plagiarism. That’s a shame for me, as it was the only one on the longlist that I had read, although I will be reading another longlisted book next month.
Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you, is, writes The Guardian*, “the third instalment of an auto-fictional series exploring the life of a young Muslim boy in western Sydney named Bani Adam”. It follows The Lebs which was also shortlisted for the Award.
Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters (Lisa’s review, not her favourite de Kretser, and kimbofo’s, also mixed), which, the judges described, as “a witty, meticulously witnessed and boldly imaginative work that rages against racism, ageism and misogyny”. De Kretser has won the award twice before.
Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light which deals with the state child care system and is told, say the judges, in an “astonishing voice that reinvents itself from age six to sixty”.
Alice Pung’s One hundred days (kimbofo’s review) is about a pregnant 16-year-old girl who is “locked into her housing commission flat by her Philippines-born Chinese mother for 100 days before the birth”. Among other things, the judges commented on the book’s “making visible the stories of those deemed powerless”.
Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the first self-published novel to be shortlisted. It was also one of Jock Serong’s recommendations in the Warm Winter Read program I recently posted about. Publishers apparently found it “wearisome” and “repellant”, but it has been praised by some writers, whom I would call bold and fearless, like Helen Garner, Murray Bail and JM Coetzee. That tells us something (perhaps!) The judges called it “a uniquely witty and original contribution to Australian literature.”
Some random observations:
There are only five books this year, as against last year’s six. Did they only think five were worth it, or was The dogs going to be the sixth? I guess we’ll never know.
It is a nicely diverse list with more than half being by, to use modern terminology, people of colour. (I hate labelling but what to do?)
It looks like, for want of a better word, an “edgy” list, with little of the tried-and-true in terms of style, form and content. Excellent to see.
For posterity’s sake, here was the longlist
Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The other half of you
Larissa Behrendt’s After story
Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters
Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light
Briohny Doyle’s Echolalia
Max Easton’s The magpie wing
Joh Hughes’ The dogs (withdrawn)
Jennifer Mills’ The airways
Alice Pung’s One hundred days
Claire Thomas’ The performance
Christos Tsiolkas’ 7 1/2
Michael Winkler’s Grimmish
A note on The dogs
I am not going to buy into the plagiarism debate, as I can’t know what Hughes did or didn’t know he was doing. However, I would like to comment on the publisher of this book, Upswell Publishing. This is an exciting new venture by Terri-ann White who did such a wonderful job at the University of Western Australia Press for many many years. The Guardian’s report (first link above) on the issue quoted White as saying that she “stands steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text”.
However, as more examples of parts of the text being identical or similar to various other works have been identified, White has realised the situation is not as she originally felt able to support. She has made a statement on her website, that:
I have published many writers who use collage and bricolage and other approaches to weaving in other voices and materials to their own work. All of them have acknowledged their sources within the book, usually in a listing of precisely where these borrowings come from. I should have pushed John Hughes harder on his lack of the standard mode of book acknowledgements where any credits to other writers (with permissions or otherwise), and the thanks to those nearest and dearest, are held. I regret that now, as you might expect. To have provided a note in this book with attribution would have been the only way to treat it. I now recognise this as a breach of my trust.
The point I’d like to make is that we should not let this upsetting situation affect our support of Upswell. I subscribed to their list last year, and have again this year. The books are beautifully designed, the list is wonderfully varied in content, and White has a reputable track record. She and her stable deserve to be supported and encouraged.
Now, back to the Award
The chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, praised the shortlist for its
range of dynamic and diverse voices that address the experience of pain, intergenerational trauma and intergenerational dialogue with compassion, exceptional craft and rigorous unsentimentality.
Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.
This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley (both also on last year’s panel), and new members, scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty, and writer and editor Elfie Shiosaki.
The winner will be announced on 20 July.
What do you think of the shortlist?
* All other quotes in the Shortlist section come from the same The Guardian article.
This is my fourth post in a little sub-series looking at the Miles Franklin Award by decade.
As with the first three, written back in 2016, I don’t plan to list all the decade’s winners, as you can find them on the Award’s official site. Instead, I’ll share some interesting snippets, inspired by my Trove meanders. This mostly involved The Canberra Times and The Australian Jewish News, because this period is still within copyright, meaning the NLA can only digitise newspapers which have given them permission to do so.
Men in the ascendant (again)
In my third decade post (linked below), I noted the increase in awards made to women. Just five awards were won by women in the first two decades combined, but in the third decade, four of the nine awards went to women. This reflected, I suggested, the flowering of writing by Australian women in the late 1970s and 1980s. However, it wasn’t to last. In the fourth decade, eight of the nine awards made went to men – and the woman who did win generated one of the Award’s biggest controversies (see below). Without spoiling my fifth decade post, this “bias” towards men continued for another ten years or more, which inspired, among other things, the establishment of the Stella Award in 2012 … but, I’m jumping ahead. Let’s stay in the nineties for the moment.
The skewing towards men, not surprisingly, carried through to the shortlists, with 31 men shortlisted over the decade to 18 women. However, when it comes to multiple listings, four writers, two men and two women, were shortlisted three times: Rodney Hall and David Malouf, Thea Astley and Janette Turner Hospital (who has never won it).
The men who won included previous winners Peter Carey, Tim Winton, and Rodney Hall. The others were Tom Flood, David Malouf, Alex Miller, Christopher Koch and David Foster. I admit that I didn’t know Tom Flood, but Dorothy Hewett was his mother. His winning book, Oceana Fine, was his only novel.
JOLLEY’S latest has just been omitted from the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award. That is a real shame because The Sugarmother is a great book.
The controversy concerned Helen Demidenko’s novel, The hand that signed the paper, which won in 1995. Bill (The Australian Legend) summarised the controversy beautifully in his post on the book, so why reinvent the wheel? Bill wrote:
For the benefit of non-Australians, the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award to Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper, the story of a Ukrainian family collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The granting of the Award to an anti-semitic work was justified on the grounds that Demidenko was telling the story of her people, until Demidenko, who would attend speaking engagements dressed in the costume of a Ukrainian peasant girl, was finally unmasked as Helen Darville, a University of Queensland student of entirely English background.
This was a multi-pronged controversy – and Bill explores some of the prongs in his excellent post. There were criticisms of the work itself: it was uneven and poorly written, it was racist/anti-semitic, it distorted history. There were criticisms of the author’s deception regarding her background, with some saying that the only reason they accepted this unpleasant book’s win was because the author was speaking for “her” people. (This feeds into current discussions about who can write what.) There was discussion about literary criticism – about whether it’s all about the text, or whether other considerations, like the author’s background, are relevant to assessing a work. There were discussions about the line between fact and fiction, particularly since Demidenko/Darville herself called her work “faction”. There were criticisms of plagiarism, which were subsequently overturned. There were suggestions that the author, around 24 at the time, was a disturbed young woman to be pitied. And, there were criticisms of the judges – of their decision in the first place, their refusal to admit they were wrong, and their not engaging in discussion. The novel was apparently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and then quietly un-shortlisted before the announcement. The controversy raged for months.
The book, by the way, had previously won the 1993 The Australian/Vogel LiteraryAward for unpublished manuscript, and in 1995 it also won the ALS Gold Medal.
Lest you think, however, that this was the only Miles Franklin Award controversy of the decade, think again. The ongoing issue of the “Australian content” requirement raised its head during the decade too. In 1994, when Rodney Hall won for The grisly wife, The Canberra Times reports that, “The Georges’ Wife [Elizabeth Jolley], and Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, were disqualified because the judges decided they did not have enough Australian content”.
No award (again)
In both the second and third decades, there was a year in which no award was made. It happened again this decade but for a purely administrative reason, to do with changing the award’s timing from year of publication to year of announcement!
The value of awards
Given I’ve posted on the value of awards recently, I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of points that came out of this little piece of research.
“An award like this is a bit like the Archibald to painting. Both are extremely well known and important … People who don’t necessarily buy a book when it first comes out are interested to see what books turn up on the short list and which book wins. That kind of interest is always very important.”
He also admits that winning awards offers reassurance:
“Writers are very diffident, basically. They’re always doubtful of themselves and it’s always good when you are offered approval for what you have done”
“I decided it was terrific to be short-listed and that was that, and I just got on with my work, and then when I was told last Wednesday I really couldn’t believe it … It’s enormous validation and acknowledgment, for sure.
It’s a bit of a watershed, isn’t it, winning something like Miles Franklin.”
I mentioned above sales for Demidenko/Darville’s book, but that had the “benefit” of controversy. Tim Winton’s 1992-winning Cloudstreet experienced a boost in sales. The Canberra Times reported less than two months after Winton’s win:
… Tim Winton returned recently from a 30-day promotional tour of the United States, where Graywolf’s beautiful hardback edition of his Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Cloudstreet has already sold more than 12,000 copies. In Australia, where it was published by McPhee Gribble and Penguin, sales have topped 60,000.
Nothwithstanding this week’s Monday Musings posts on literary awards, I still like the Miles Franklin – partly because of its significance in the Australian literary firmament – and so I am sharing today’s announcement of this year’s winner which I watched via You Tube.
Just to recap, from my shortlist post: Each of the shortlisted writers received $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize. This year’s judges comprised, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.
So, more on the winner …
This is Lohrey’s second listing for the Miles Franklin award, but her first win. The panel described the novel as a “profound mediation” on loss, with judging panel chair, Richard Neville commanding the “clarity” of her prose in exploring “loss at so many levels”. (Notably, Neville also mentioned the increasing cultural diversity appearing in the awards, by which I assume he meant, in the books submitted. Ninety-six titles were submitted.)
Amanda Lohrey spoke briefly, thanking various people – including family, publisher, editor, of course. She praised her publisher, the wonderful Text Publishing, for supporting “literary values” and she talked of the award’s benefactor, Miles Franklin, as “the great Australian nonconformist”. She also thanked the readers whom she described as an “indestructible tribe” in a world of Netflix (etc). She characterised the relationship between writer and readers as “an extraordinary exchange among strangers.” I like that.
The presentation also included last year’s winner Tara June Winch congratulating Amanda Lohrey. She said that what she gained, in particular, from the award, was “a readership”. Isn’t that great to hear, because that – and the “gift of time” – is what we hope awards like this offer books and their writers.
And, finally, just for fun. Today The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on How to win the Miles Franklin: Analysing 64 years of data, by Pallavi Singhal. It looks at the usual issues like gender, origin (birth location, ethnicity), age, but also other points you may not have considered like length (“write about 400 pages”, it says), title style (“Begin your book title with ‘the’ and keep it short”) and publisher (Allen & Unwin is ahead at the moment)!
I haven’t posted on the Miles Franklin Award since 2019, and I didn’t post this year’s longlist when it came out last month, but, despite my woeful record – I’ve yet to read any on the longlist – I felt it was about time I returned to Australia’s best known literary award.
Unfortunately, I was driving in the back blocks of northeast Victoria when the announcement was made, with no Internet connection in our room overnight. We have landed in civilisation – hmmm – depending on you definition, and are once more connected! I thought I’d start by sharing the longlist:
Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile ((on my TBR and will definitely be read this year)
Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea
The judges describe the spread as “‘a rich mix of well-established, early career and debut novelists whose work ranges from historical fiction to fabulism and psychologism”.
And now, the shortlist:
Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty
Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron
Daniel Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world
Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth
Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
Madeleine Watts’ The inland sea
Some random observations:
Two of the authors – Adiga and Wood – are not Australian-born or based, but meet the award’s criteria because their subject matter is Australian (that is, they present ‘Australian life in any of its phases’). Adiga won the Booker Prize in 2008 with The white tiger, and Wood is apparently the founder and publisher of Splice, a small UK-based press.
None of these books are on my TBR pile – wah – though I have been wanting to read Lohrey so this might be the impetus I need.
There appears to be less diversity in terms of author background, though Adiga is Indian.
There are four women and two men, which is fine, particularly given the award has rebalanced the gender representation well over recent years.
None of these authors have won the Award before, but two, Arnott and Lohrey, have been listed before.
Two – Pippos and Watts – are debut novelists.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) will be happy as she was mightily impressed with Lohrey’s Labyrinth (see her review above).
Each of the shortlisted writers will receive $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, with the winner receiving $60,000 prize.
‘In various ways each of this year’s shortlisted books investigate destructive loss: of loved ones, freedom, self and the environment … There is, of course, beauty and joy to be found, and decency and hope, largely through the embrace of community but, as the shortlist reminds us, often community is no match for more powerful forces.’
This year’s judges comprise, as always, continuing judges and new ones, providing I think a good mix of experience and fresh ideas: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), author and activist Sisonke Msimang, and critics Melinda Harvey, Bernadette Brennan and James Ley.
The winner will be announced on 15 July.
And, for a bit of fun, we saw this on a school notice board as we drove by today:
I always knock on the fridge door just in case salad’s dressing. (Eltham Primary School)
This is not going to be a treatise on the Miles Franklin Award and diversity. We all know literary awards have not been as diverse as they could have been (and that they still have a way to go). We know, too, that this is not only due to judging, but also reflects the fact that the publishing industry has not been as diverse as it could be. It is probably also true that, in the past at least, we readers have not demanded more diversity in our reading. However, this story is too complex for this post, and, anyhow, has been explored many times. Today, I simply want to celebrate those Indigenous Australian writers who have been listed for and/or won Australia’s (arguably) most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, in the spirit of bringing attention to their work as a body of literature.
Notwithstanding the above, I do need to make the point that it wasn’t until 2000 that we started seeing Indigenous Australian writers appear in the short and longlists for the award*.
2014 Alexis Wright The Swan Book (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
2016 Tony Birch Ghost River (longlisted) (my review)
2018 Kim Scott’s Taboo (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
2019 Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (won) (my review)
2020 Tony Birch’s The white girl (shortlisted) (my review)
2020 Tara June Winch’s The yield (won) (my review)
You could probably call this a round-up of the usual suspects, in terms of contemporary Indigenous Australian novelists, with Kim Scott and Tony Birch appearing three times, Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright twice each, and of course relative newbie, Tara June Winch, once. It’s notable that every book here deals with Indigenous issues. This is important for truth-telling, but it will be a measure of our maturity as a nation when Indigenous Australian writers can feel free of the need to carry these truths on their backs.
Anyhow, I wonder what Miles Franklin would say? When she said “without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil”, I don’t believe she was thinking of the real Indigenous people of this soil. However, I imagine that, were she living now, she would love the richness that the growth of Indigenous Australian literature has brought to Australian life and culture.
It seems apposite, then, to leave this (very) little tribute with the words of this year’s winner, Tara June Winch, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.” Absolutely. Let’s hope more and more diverse writers get to tell their stories to us. I – and I know many of my litblogging friends – love to read them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do read The yield, a complex but strong book which its author calls “a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”
Have you read any of the listed books, and if so, would you like to share your favourite/s?
* I may have missed a writer or two, as I didn’t find complete lists of short and longlisted authors from the beginning of the award, but I think my point still stands.
Well, good news for me (because it’s all about me of course!) Not only had I read more of the longlist and the shortlist than is my usual achievement, but one of those books is the winner – and a wonderful winner it is too, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review)!
Really, as much as I liked the other contenders I’d read, I did hope this would win – because it is truth-telling of the most honest sort. Indeed, Lucashenko has said that she expected backlash (which didn’t come) from indigenous communities for her no-holds barred story about a rather dysfunctional indigenous family in which violence and substance abuse, in particular, is no stranger. Lucashenko, does, of course, underpin this squarely with references to/evocation of the causes, that is, the intergenerational trauma indigenous people have experienced after two centuries of dispossession (and all the policies and practices that have ensued to deny them equality, dignity, and thus the health and security that we all deserve as citizens of this country.)
But, in addition to this honest, real story about contemporary indigenous lives and culture – about the challenge of marrying traditional beliefs and values with contemporary life – is the fact that it’s a rip-roaring tale. Humorous, page-turning, with colourful, individuated characters. If you haven’t read it yet, you surely will now!?
It’s not surprising that Melissa Lucashenko says Too Much Lip was her most difficult book to write. After all, it deals with physical and substance abuse, violence, marginalisation, displacement and dispossession, racism and incarceration within the experience of one Indigenous family.
He quotes the judges as saying that she “weaves a (sometimes) fabulous tale with the very real politics of cultural survival to offer a story of hope and redemption for all Australians”. Exactly!
I apologise for the delayed announcement – I was at reading group last night, and was distracted by our exciting discussions!
But, woo hoo! This is an inspired and inspiring choice! Well done judges, I say.
Well, good news for me in that I had read three of the longlist, and two of those have made it through to the shortlist. Interestingly, the one that didn’t, Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe, has been making such a splash that I rather expected it to be shortlisted. But, as we all know, you can never second guess literary judges.
Judge Bernadette Brennan said this year’s authors were “unafraid to take risks” in their narratives, which addressed “complex, disparate and urgent aspects of contemporary Australian life”.
This is certainly true of the two I’ve read …
Michaela Boland, writing for the ABC News, spoke to Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and wrote this:
While Mr Ahmad said that [winning the Prize] would be welcomed, the honour itself had already eased the insecurity and inadequacy he said was inherent to being an Arab Muslim immigrant in Australia.
“Three years ago our immigration minister Peter Dutton said second or third-generation Lebanese Australians like me are the mistakes of the Fraser government,” he said, after he learned his second book was one of the six short-listed.
It’s so distressing that Ahmad and, clearly, many other Australian citizens have to live their lives feeling this way – and that our government doesn’t seem to think it has a role to play in setting a welcoming, inclusive tone.
Anyhow, the judges, as I wrote in my longlist post, for this year are almost the same as last year’s: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Bernadette Brennan (author and literary critic). Brennan replaces last year’s Susan Sheridan.
The winner will be announced on 30 July in Sydney.
There are 10 on the longlist. The Miles Franklin judges have, in recent years, not constrained themselves to a set number for their longlist. In 2018 there were 11 books, In 2016 and 2017, there were 9 books, and in 2015 there were 10.)
Half of the longlisted books are by women writers. Two of these, Gail Jones and Melissa Lucashenko, were also longlisted for the Stella Prize.
Rodney Hall has won twice before, for Just relations and The grisly wife, and been shortlisted three more times.
I was little surprised not to see Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge on the list – but this is always the way. I accept that!
There are debut authors here – including Trent Dalton and Tracy Sorenson – and many well established ones (who don’t seen to be named!)
State Library of NSW Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville, said, on behalf of the judging panel:
The 2019 Miles Franklin longlist yet again highlights a mixture of new and established writers. It showcases ten of the most vibrant voices of Australian fiction speaking to us of lives facing, or having endured, some version of extremity. Angry, funny, contemplative and urgent, these voices—which include a galah—explore personal, historical and ecological loss, cultural inheritances and disenfranchisement, and the fraught bonds of friendships, families and communities.
I am rushing to go out… so will leave that for you to think about.
The judges for this year are almost the same as last year’s: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW), Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Bernadette Brennan (author and literary critic). Brennan replaces last year’s Susan Sheridan.
The shortlist will be announced on 2 July at the State Library of New South Wales, and the winner on 30 July in Sydney.
Serendipitously, while trawling Trove for something else recently, I came across a fascinating article in the Tribune about the winners of the first two Miles Franklin Awards. The article was written by Jack Beasley in July 1959, and the two winners were Patrick White’s Voss (1957), and Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958), two books which are now regarded as significant Australian classics. Jack Beasley wouldn’t have agreed!
So, who was Jack Beasley? Born in 1921, he was interested in the arts, was closely associated with the Australasian Book Society, and at one stage had his own publishing company. He wrote several books, including a memoir and a couple of books on Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was also a member, for many years, of the Communist Party of Australia. The Tribune, for those of you who don’t know, was the Party’s official newspaper. This background is relevant to his criticism of White and Stow’s wins.
He commences his article by stating that Randolph Stow’s winning the award has created quite a lot of discussion, particularly since it followed Patrick White’s winning for Voss the year before:
The two authors are the leading exponents of the so-called “prose-poetry” school, very fashionable today in literary circles attached to the big publishing houses.
He quotes Sidney J. Baker, whom he describes as a Sydney Morning Herald authority. Baker
regards their work as a “new type, of novel … distinguished by strength and sincerity and blowing away traditional debris like a cool wind after sizzling heat.” It should be added that among the “traditional debris” blown away are the traditions for which Miles Franklin herself so firmly stood.
Hmm, so the award should only be for writers who write in the same style as Miles Franklin?
Anyhow, Beasley writes that Franklin “believed that literature drew its ideas from life and attachment to native soil, and she wrote with a vigorous, entertaining prose”:
Her major work, ‘”All That Swagger” is notable for Danny Delacy and his “brave Joanna,” Irish immigrants who go through life undaunted by its buffetings and rejoicing in its happinesses.
In sorry contrast are the morbid heroes of Messrs. White and Stow, who flee from life and society in search of some individual haven.
To Beasley, prose-poetry “is a fad of style, a pretentious juggling of words and grammar”. He quotes from both White and Stow to prove his point, and then argues that while this “obscure” style is new in Australia, it “emerged many years ago in bourgeois culture”. He names “Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and the extreme case, Gertrude Stein” as exponents of the style.
“Individual haven” and “Bourgeois culture” give away his leanings. He discusses To the islands:
According to some reviewers, “To the Islands” shows a warm sympathy for the Aborigines. This is partly true, but an even warmer sympathy is shown for the missionaries and whatever might be the personal motivation of individual missionaries, history has shown that the missions have played their part in the destruction of tribal life and the continuing ordeal of the Aboriginal people.
This is of course true, but what becomes increasingly clear is that Beasley’s main criticism is in fact less the style than the content of White and Stow’s work. The criticism focuses very much on the fact that their focus is the “individual” which is not part of Communist ethos. He describes White and Stow as being “closely bound to the capitalist class”, and writes that their protagonists, Voss and Heriot,
are nothing more than the bourgeois intellectuals, or more correctly a personification of the crisis of the intellectuals, desperately reaching for a sanctuary. They feel the sands shifting beneath them but are still unable because of their individualism to accept the new ideas that are emerging.
He believes intellectuals need to grasp new ways of thinking:
Only by coming to the working class and taking their part in the struggles led by this class for a better life, only by ceasing to believe in the omniscience of the lonely individual and learning in life of the inexhaustible strength of collective ideas, can the intellectuals have a future.
The socialist countries show again and again that there is no hostile contradiction there between the intellectuals and the proletariat and the Australian workers have always welcomed those who joined their cause.
Only at the end of his article does he return, somewhat off-handedly, to the style issue:
It is not suggested that Miles Franklin would have supported all of the views stated above [that is, his political views], but both the misanthropic themes and the literary quality of the two prizewinners are at variance with her view of life and literary standard.
It might have ended there but, intriguingly, a few weeks later, a letter in response appeared in the same paper – by author Alan Marshall. He thought the article was the “best analysis” he’d read of this new trend, but he takes issue with a couple of points. One is Beasley’s generalisation about “intellectuals”, his tarring them all with the same brush, but the other is his use of the term of “prose poets”.
What is wrong with prose poetry? The works of Katharine Prichard are full of it; Turgenev was a master at it; Gorky often delighted in it; Sholokhov’s works feature it. It can lift prose to its highest level and be an inspiration to mankind. In the hands of the writers I have mentioned it not only appeals to the highest emotions but to the reason as well.
Patrick White and Stow are not Prose Poets.
They are obscurantists juggling words to obscure sense in an effort, to create a sense of profundity. They believe readers have little faith in their judgement; that readers praise what they cannot understand for fear of being regarded as incapable of appreciating good writing.
Ouch … “obscurantists”, not “prose poets”.
I’m leaving it here. I’m sharing this because I like hearing the arguments and ideas of another time, and testing them against our own (with the benefit of time). Marshall’s criticism of authors writing obscurely to create profundity is often trotted out. But, clearly, his and Beasley’s assessments of White and Stow have not stood the test of time, thank goodness.